Why use the Team Onion?

The founding concepts behind the Team Onion are:

Silos stop work flowing smoothly. If work is blocked from getting into the hands of the people who need to use it, then you cannot create value.

Small teams can move faster because they can communicate and collaborate more effectively. Conversely, big teams have a more significant communication overhead,  slower decision-making, and a greater cognitive load.

There must be explicit collaboration outside the core team to keep teams small and bridge silos.

Silos stop work flowing

Silos are the antithesis of empathy. They make it hard for ideas and work to flow and for people to share valuable information. Far from ideal when an organisation is trying to get everyone to pull in the same direction.

Here is a real-life scenario: a multidisciplinary agile team was working on an essential service; they had a mix of capabilities, a backlog that responded to change, and a delivery rhythm. But they weren’t able to get anything live.

The team said it was because other parts of the organisation were blocking them. Some examples are that security wouldn’t let them put anything live, and the policy team wouldn’t turn up to their workshops.

The people they were pointing at said they didn’t understand what the team was doing, what the team needed from them, and anyway, they were busy with other things, so why would they participate? It was no one’s fault, but everyone else’s fault — typical siloed organisational behaviour.

Modern approaches encourage small multidisciplinary teams with all the capabilities needed to design, build and deliver, working together to achieve an outcome, releasing value early and often.

Teams do not work in a vacuum.

This is fine when an organisation is very small, and people play mixed roles, but what about large organisations with whole functions dedicated to activities like legal, policy, marketing, customer support and security? All capabilities needed could mean teams of fifty people or more. Certainly not small.

Small teams can move faster.

A team is not just about the number of people in it, but also about the relationship dynamics. Including how they interact with each other, their cultural norms, active conversations and shared history.

To function effectively in a team, each member needs to understand the relationships between themselves and the other people in the team as well as those between everyone else in the team.

“as a team gets bigger, the number of links that need to be managed among members goes up at an accelerating, almost exponential rate. It’s managing the links between members that gets teams into trouble.” 

J. Richard Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at Harvard University [reference]

Adding more people to a team makes communication a more significant overhead, decision making becomes slower and cognitive load increases. And adding one person doesn’t just add one extra relationship; it adds many.

Here’s an illustration:

Geometric shape showing five dots connected to each other by ten lines
5 people / 10 relationships
Geometric shape showing seven dots connected to each other by twenty-one lines
7 people / 21 relationships
Geometric shape showing nine dots connected to each other by thirty-six lines
9 people / 36 relationships
Geometric shape showing eleven dots connected to each other by fifty-five lines
11 people / 55 relationships
Geometric shape showing thirteen dots connected to each other by seventy-eight lines
13 people / 78 relationships
Geometric shape showing fourteen dots connected to each other by ninety-one lines
14 people / 91 relationships

These relationships grow exponentially with new people; having 25 people on a team creates 300 relationships.

So what’s the ideal team size?

It depends, but a good rule of thumb often cited with digital teams is seven plus or minus two. That’s a range of five to nine people. That keeps your relationships between 10 and 36.

Overview of the Onion

The Team Onion is a three-layer model that helps people collaborate to visualise their wider team. The layers are core, collaborators and supporters. These layers then create discussion, prioritisation and actions to set up collaboration and communication patterns.

Read more on how to create your Team Onion here.